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'Showing Up:' Sculpting the Sublime

Age-old romantic myths swirl around the process of creating art. Think of the tortured artist, whose work triumphantly emerges from all-consuming emotional spirals. Consider the Bohemian, who chooses a life of noble, aesthetic poverty to fully dedicate themselves to their craft. And what about the flash of inspiration, a single instant when a work appears fully formed, ready to be translated into the real world?

Showing Up captures a far more mundane reality, and a much deeper truth. For most, making art is a slow and winding process full of setbacks, distractions, and curveballs. It can be a lonely endeavor, and sometimes even a selfish one. Fame and fortune are reserved for a lucky few, while others find their struggle less of an inspiration than… a struggle. Yet, even untangled from the myths, bringing something new and beautiful into the world may just make it all worth it; moving just one person deems the labor worthy of pride.

Kelly Reichardt’s newest film centers around a young sculptor named Lizzy, vividly portrayed by Michelle Williams in her fourth collaboration with the director. Lizzy is perpetually downbeat, lacking in social grace and uneasy with the world around her. Yet she remains sympathetic, even in her most hostile moments. She is stuck working a tedious job for her mother at an Oregon art school, sculpting in her limited free time while waiting for a better life to materialize. We watch a week in her life as she prepares for a show at a local art venue, weaving together moments of mundanity, drama, and transcendence.

Lizzy’s characterization is sharpened in opposition to Jo (Hong Chau), a fellow sculptor who is at once her colleague, rival, landlord, neighbor, and best friend. Jo is artistically successful and financially well-off, showered in love and praise to an often comical degree. One of the primary threads in Showing Up is the lack of hot water in Lizzy’s apartment, whose escalating complaints are mostly ignored by Jo, who claims to be too busy preparing for her own shows to install a replacement water heater. This class-conscious plot acts as a proxy for all the bottled emotions of a complicated relationship, one that is precisely detailed and, for many, incredibly familiar.

Lizzy’s relationship with her family is no simpler– her parents (Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch) are unhappily divorced and her reclusive brother (John Magaro) suffers from an unspecified mental illness. All four are artists, varying in their approaches, mediums, and levels of success. Despite this common pursuit, they communicate only with great difficulty, each requiring a special kind of love that they can’t seem to provide to each other. Adding on to the stress of her show is the hassle of getting them all to the gallery in time, and the anxiety that one of them may make a scene.

More trouble arises when her cat, Ricky, injures a pigeon who sneaks into her apartment. Out of obligation and guilt, Lizzy is stuck caring for the pigeon at the expense of her crucial sculpting time, nursing it back to health in a cozy cardboard nest (the film could just as well have been titled Bird Box). While she is annoyed with this responsibility at first, she develops a maternal tenderness towards the bird, who becomes a sort of companion through her chaotic week. Animal lovers will love this adorable side plot and its magical conclusion.

Fans of Kelly Reichardt and newcomers alike are likely to appreciate the stylistic and thematic trademarks on display, as well as the oblique insight into the director’s own creative process. Although Showing Up is slightly faster-paced and more tightly plotted relative to her previous films, it is still incredibly patient, showing flashes of the slow cinema aesthetic Reichardt continues to evolve. She is, as always, interested in daily life, shaping her narrative around marginalia and finding moments of truth within the ordinary. She also treats the story with her subtle sense of humor, gently poking fun at the quirks of a note-perfect ensemble without ever reducing her characters to caricatures.

Showing Up especially excels when it focuses on art, and the myriad ways to create and relate to it. The art school campus is abuzz with creative energy – every room and hallway are filled with works-in-progress, often bold and beautiful. Sometimes the camera merely passes by, whereas other times it stops to contemplate: for example, when Lizzy takes a stroll around Jo’s upcoming exhibit, the viewer is mesmerized alongside her, basking in the colorful abstraction of her massive fiber and yarn sculptures (created by artist Michelle Segre).

In deliberate contrast, Lizzy’s sculptures (created by artist Cynthia Lahti) are smaller-scale painted ceramic figurines, depicting women in dynamic and expressive poses. Reichardt, Lahti, and Williams build a fantastic metaphor at the core of Showing Up, suggesting how Lizzy’s aesthetic and personality unlock each other. Though immobile, her sculptures convey an uncanny sense of motion via their contortions and poses embracing themselves as full, liberated beings. In this simultaneous stuckness and freedom, Lizzy finds her own attainment, her art a re-imagination of the life she defiantly navigates.

The most fascinating scene in the film is a hypnotic long take (circa five minutes) of Lizzy sculpting a figurine in a dress, standing with her left forearm slightly raised. When the shot begins, the figure looks essentially complete, but Lizzy sees a chance to transform the entire piece. She amputates its resting right forearm, flips it upside down, and carefully molds it back onto the elbow: originally confused, now the woman looks inquisitive, exploring her world with an evocatively dainty disposition. Even in removing the forearm, she applies this entire change with the utmost care, as if responding to the desires of the sculpture itself.

The moment is both monotonous and utterly mesmerizing. The process of creating art is never easy and never obvious; it is a continual becoming, the sum of creative experiments and life experiences, moving one step at a time towards beauty. With all of the stresses competing for Lizzy’s attention, she could simply stop sculpting, gaining valuable time and energy in return. She wouldn’t even be wrong for making that choice. But, with quiet determination, she embraces this process, her own self blossoming as she brings her sculptures to life. Her rare smiles are satisfaction manifest, realizing that her work has, if only for a moment, touched a soul.

I can’t help but imagine Kelly Reichardt in the editing room working with the same patience, curiosity, and care, organically shaping her films into what they want to become. In this way, Showing Up may be her most meta and most personal work to date, a singular blessing from one of our most gifted living filmmakers. Are you coming to the show?




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